The Chinese Room is a Zeno Paradox

John Searle’s “Chinese room argument” against of the feasibility of Artificial Consciousness is a variant of Zeno’s Paradox applied to cognition (Video version).

Here, I will discuss what is commonly known as “The Chinese room argument” against the feasibility of synthetic consciousness. This argument was first proposed by professor John Searle, an American philosopher, in an article titled “Minds, Brains, and Programs“, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1980. The mind experiment on which the argument rests is still extensively discussed in countless articles and symposia.

Any Internet search will rapidly generate ample information about both professor Searle and the Chinese room argument. In the following descriptions I paraphrase from Wikipedia.

The Chinese room argument holds that: a program cannot give a computer a “mind”, “understanding” or “consciousness”, regardless of how intelligently or human-like the program may make the computer behave.

The centerpiece of professor Searle’s argument is a thought experiment known as The Chinese room. The thought experiment begins with a hypothetical premise: suppose that artificial intelligence research has constructed a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that this computer performs its task so well that it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a live Chinese speaker that understands Chinese.

The question professor Searle asks is: does the machine literally “understand” Chinese (this is what he calls strong A.I.)? Or is it merely simulating the ability to understand Chinese (what he refers to as weak A.I.).

To answer, he places himself, figuratively, in a closed room holding an English version of the computer program. He receives Chinese characters through a slot in the door, processes them according to the program’s instructions, and produces Chinese characters as output. He then observes that if the computer executing the program has convinced a Chinese speaker it can understand Chinese, he would do so as well, even though he does not understand or speak any Chinese.

He argues, that similarly, a program consists of thousands of processes that simply receive, process and output symbols without “understanding” (or “intentionality“) he argues, so, we cannot describe what the machine is doing as “thinking” and it does not have a “mind” in anything like the normal sense of the word. Therefore, he concludes that “strong AI” the conjecture that the machine can have understanding and consciousness is false.

This summarizes the Chinese room argument. As I stated, you can easily find references to it on the Internet.

A variant of Zeno’s Paradox

My position is this:

John Searle’s “Chinese room argument” against of the feasibility of machine Consciousness is a variant of Zeno’s Paradox applied to cognition.

Here, by Zeno, I am not referring to the Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. I am talking about Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher who used a particular type of argument to produce paradoxes that contradicted observed events. His most famous paradox (also known as Zeno’s paradox) asserts that:

In a race between Achilles and a turtle, if the turtle has a head start then, Achilles can never overtake it, since the pursuer must first reach the original point when the pursuit started so that the slower must always hold a lead.

For example if Achilles allows the turtle a head start of 100 meters, then, when he will have run those 100 meters, the turtle will be in front by 10 meters, after the 10 meters, it will still be in front by 1 meter, and so on. Whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the turtle has been, he still has farther to go. Therefore, according to Zeno, he can never overtake the turtle.

This is Zeno’s Paradox. It is called a paradox by the way because human racers can and do overtake turtles when they race against them, even when the turtles have a head start. Otherwise, if it did not contradict observed events, it would not be called a paradox but an argument.

To produce his paradox, Zeno followed a specific strategy that can be described as follows:

Given a situation and a linked event that is either observed or hypothesized, partition the situation in such a way that none of the partition components contains the event that was hypothesized or observed.

In the case of Zeno’s discussion of the race between Achilles and the turtle, the event in question is the “overtaking” or passing of the slower runner by the faster one. Here, Zeno’s method partitions distance in such a way that the overtaking event is not found in any of the partitioned components.

This is what Professor Searle does in the Chinese room argument but this time with respect to cognition. By mentally placing himself in the Chinese room as an organic processor that doesn’t understands Chinese and describes himself as carrying out the step-wise symbol manipulations of the program. Doing this, he effectively partitions the dialog situation into components that consist only of symbol or value manipulations. He then concludes that since the “event” of understanding Chinese is not present in any of these components, it cannot exist in the overall situation either.

In other words, since none of the individual routines or steps is conscious, since they are only symbol or value manipulations, then the collective dynamic behavior of the whole cannot be conscious either.

Bad news for aspiring actors

At this point and before I continue, I must share some very bad news for those young people who moved to Hollywood hoping to make a career acting in the movies. You are wasting your time. Why? Because:

Movies do not exist.

Using professor Searle’s methodology I carefully scrutinized dozens of film reels searching for movement in the individual images they contain. I looked for any sign of movement everywhere, and found none of these pictures nor any part of them contained any movement at all.

I then examined the projectors and did find some movement there, however it was a completely different type of movement not comparable in any way to the movement we could see in movies. Applying Professor Searle’s methodology I concluded that: movies cannot exist.

So, my message to those young people hoping to make a career acting in the movies is this: move out, do something else, go to Idaho, grow potatoes, go shrimp fishing in Louisiana, anything, but don’t waste anymore time in Hollywood.


To conclude, John Searle’s Chinese room argument against machine consciousness is a variant of Zeno’s Paradox applied to cognition.

It remains a great conversation topic at a cocktail party or a barbecue. But, if you are serious about building the first generation of conscious machines then, don’t waste your time, simply disregard it.

Currently, Professor Searle’s Chinese room argument is an argument. Once synthetic Consciousness is implemented, however, this argument will also become a paradox, remembered as an amusing regurgitation of Zeno’s paradox that kept dozens of researchers busy over many years at the end of the twentieth Century and beginning of the twenty first.

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